3 years, 12 months ago
"I can't think why you would want to spend so much time here Doctor," said Felix, "it seems a very odd place to choose as a regular holiday destination."
"I think it's rather pleasant," said the Doctor brightly, "especially since we cleared out the former management."
"The former management?" asked Felix.
"Oh, Drumlins Westmore tried to enclose this place a little while ago," said the Doctor.
"Drumlins Westmore? Sounds like a British general. General Sir George Drumlins-Westmore OBE."
"Ha! No, it's a corporation. The Drumlins Westmore Interplanetary News and Entertainment Media Group. Or something like that. There's probably an Inc in there too somewhere. They set up a department on one of their office worlds devoted entirely to fiction. Hired loads of struggling wannabe authors. Lured them in with promises of agents and publishing contracts and regular meals."
"You mean they started publishing novels? They created a sort of novel factory?"
"No, they didn't publish anything. They got the writers to spend all day writing stories featuring brilliant, dynamic, hyper-capable, unbeatable employees of the Drumlins Westmore Corporation. Heroic corporate accountants and lawyers and lobbyists and marketing executives. Capitalist atlases who never faltered in their noble determination to cure all of society's ills by privatising everything... into the hands of Drumlins Westmore, naturally. The writers took to it with depressing ease and speed. As a rule, the more principled a writer, the quicker they accomodated themselves to the work. You should've heard the byzantine self-justifications I had to listen to. Anyway, the fictional Drumlins Westmore employees from the stories all appeared here as a matter of course. And, also as a matter of course, they immediately set about taking over. It worked too. Effectively, Drumlins Westmore pulled off a hostile takeover of the Land of Fiction."
"But that's all over now?" asked Felix.
"Oh yes," laughed the Doctor, grinning so widely Felix thought her head was about to split in two, "we couldn't be having that sort of thing now could we?"
They walked and the Doctor expounded.
"It's the people you meet here, you see. That's why I keep coming back. That and a strange feeling I get... a feeling of coming home. But in a good way."
"It doesn't seem entirely safe here," said Felix, "even without those Drumlins and Westmore gentlemen."
Felix looked around warily, as if expecting a corporate accountant or a marketing executive to leap out at him and attack.
He was still somewhat on edge after half an hour of hiding behind a rock from a platoon of huge robotic tripods. He and the Doctor had spied them in the far distance. The Doctor had insisted they duck out of sight, just in case. Even so, she had leaned around the rocks and spied on the things with her telescope. Felix had taken a turn. Through the telescope he saw them, metallic tendrils flailing from the bulbous bodies suspended at the tops of their tall and jointed legs. They were lumbering towards a far-off cluster of settlements connected by rivers, backed by gorges, and interspersed with farmland filled with grazing sheep.
"Most household accidents happen in the home," said the Doctor absently.
Felix was getting accustomed to her sometimes oblique way of speaking.
"Nowhere is entirely safe," he translated, with the rueful air of someone announcing the solution to a riddle five minutes after everyone else in the room had figured it out.
They had been trudging uphill for almost half an hour, and were nearly at their destination. The dirty winding road ended at the gates of a deeply improbable-looking castle. Felix thought it looked like something from the tales of Hoffman... except for the colour scheme, or rather the lack of one.
"Should we not have helped the people in that country?" asked Felix, "Those tripod things did not look pleasant."
"The people of Erewhon can look after themselves," said the Doctor.
Felix looked up at the massive, grey castle door as they approached it. It was set into the grey stone walls. The portcullis was grey. The drawbridge upon which they stood was grey. The water in the moat beneath their feet was grey.
He looked down at his own body. His pale grey hands emerged from his darker grey sleeves. At least his army greatcoat was still more or less the right colour.
"This will wear off, won't it Doctor?" he asked.
"You've already asked me that," said the Doctor. Inspecting a closed hatch in the door. She looked entirely at ease with her greyness. It suited her somehow.
"Well, it is a matter of great concern to me," replied Felix. "I do not wish to be in black and white for the rest of my life."
"This land is in black and white," said the Doctor, "I don't know why. It just is. We'll go back to being the way we were once we leave."
She turned back to him.
"Besides," she said, "I think you look very fetching in monochrome. A young soldier of the Kaiser's Army, like you. Suits you. Although I suppose that, for the full effect, you should be moving at about 16 frames per second."
"I feel ridiculous. I feel like Charlie Chaplin."
"Nothing wrong with that," said the Doctor, "Chaplin was a genius."
"A genius?" snorted Felix, "making those ridiculous films?"
"I'm enormously tempted to make a bigoted remark at this point. A remark involving a certain European nationality being notorious for lacking a sense of humour."
"Oh they were funny enough," said Felix, affecting a mature loftiness, "it's just that I always found them disturbing too... jarring."
"Benjamin would've understood," said the Doctor.
"Benjamin who?" asked Felix. The Doctor had never mentioned anyone called Benjamin to him before.
"Slightly after your time," said the Doctor sadly.
Felix felt foolish and ignorant.
"Of course, I've met Chaplin here," said the Doctor, "or rather some of his characters... only the early ones for some reason. If you meet any, you could ask them for some pointers about coping with life in grayscale."
"I'm glad this amuses you," said Felix, looking down again at his own silvery grey skin.
"Honestly Felix," said the Doctor approaching him and putting a hand on his shoulder, "don't worry. You'll get used to it. Trust me."
"Maybe I don't want to get used to it," protested Felix.
"But Fee, think of the aesthetics of the thing! The silver screen has a magic all its own! And black and white captures such mood, such atmosphere, so many dimensions! Think of Man Ray! Think of Murnau!"
"Some more things slightly after my time?" asked Felix.
"I did you no favours," said the Doctor, "whisking you out of Europe just as Modernism was about to take off for real. Not that Murnau was all that modern in anything but technology."
"You got me out of the war," said Felix.
"True," said the Doctor, "and I don't suppose there was ever anything more Modern than that war."
Felix looked down.
"Do you still feel guilty about leaving it?" asked the Doctor.
"Should I not have stayed to fight? Is that not what you do?"
"I fight my
wars, or the wars of people who want my help. I don't fight for kings and empires."
"We were told we were fighting an empire. The British empire."
"Empires don't fight other empires to end empire."
"I had a duty to my country."
"You had a right to your life."
"I'm not sure I had the right to leave my friends behind."
"Like Sassoon," said the Doctor, sounding sad and lost.
Felix looked at her.
"A poet," she said, "again, after your time. But only just."
"You just can't help yourself, can you?"
The Doctor bit her lip and looked down.
"What I'm trying to say is that these things..." she hunted for the words, "well, they're never just... black and white."
Felix smiled in spite of himself.
"I know, I know," he said with a weary chuckle, "life is... what's the phrase? Nothing but 'shades of grey'?"
"Yes well, let's hope we don't meet anybody from that
book," said the Doctor.
"State your name and attribution," barked a stentorian voice from behind them.
The Doctor whirled round. The hatch in the castle door had opened.
"I am the Karkus," growled the Doctor, jutting her pointy chin forward so that her battered top hat tilted alarmingly close to falling off the back of her head, "Earth; 21st Century; comic strip creation; the Hourly Telepress
"Not autheticated," said the voice flatly. The hatch snapped shut.
"Oh," said the Doctor, looking crestfallen.
She looked genuinely at a loss, which amused Felix almost as much as it alarmed him.
"That should've worked," she said, "it always has before."
"What do we do now?" asked Felix. He was rather hoping the Doctor would suggest retracing their steps, maybe making a return visit to the Blue Angel. He'd rather liked that barefoot dancer. And the place had felt like home... albeit a part of home he would never have dared to visit back in the old days. The Doctor hadn't liked it much. "I'm more of a Weimar girl myself," she had muttered.
The Doctor shook her head slightly, as if to clear it, and turned back to the door. She rapped on it smartly with her knuckles.
The hatch snapped open again.
"State your name and attribution," said the voice from within, exactly as before.
"I am the Karkus," repeated the Doctor, using the same truculent growl, but this time augmenting it with what Felix could only imagine was meant to be a germanic accent of some kind, "Earth; 21st Century; comic strip creation; the Hourly Telepress
"Not authenticated," said the voice again and, as before, the hatch snapped shut... or rather, it tried to. On this occasion, however, the Doctor had suddenly whipped a long spoon out of one of her pockets - at least, Felix assumed that was where it had come from - and jammed it into the open hole before the hatch could close.
"Hang on a mo, old chap," she said, dropping her false voice completely and reverting to her usual curving, flowing Bolton accent, "could you tell me why
my attribution is not being authenticated?"
There was silence from within.
"I mean," continued the Doctor, "I realise that the bureacracy here has become considerably less efficient since the departure of the Master Brain... and that's all to the good, don't get me wrong... but even so, you must be able to tell me what's gone wrong, yes? Hmm? Pretty please? With sugar on top, and so forth?"
"Query accepted," said the voice after a dubious silence.
"Well that's a start," said the Doctor, nodding approvingly and keeping a firm grip on her long spoon.
The silence resumed, but it somehow seemed to have become a busy, concentrated silence. It had become the silence of activity.
"Why do you carry a long spoon on your person?" asked Felix, even as he reflected that he really should have learned not to ask questions like that by now.
"You never know when you might need to sup with the Devil," said the Doctor, "especially here... though I have grounds for thinking that particular character might have escaped some time ago..."
"Query response," barked the voice from behind the door, "The character known as the Karkus is already logged as being within the Citadel."
"Aaaaah!" exclaimed the Doctor, "I see! Well that's no problem! Check your records and you'll see that the Karkus went through many versions before his eventual retirement from the strip section of the good old Hourly
. Many of those versions are completely incompatible with each other in terms of backstory, style, etc, to the point where they must
exist in seperate continuities. Blimey, he was officially relaunched and rebooted at least twice. And that's without counting the so-called 'Young Karkus Adventures'... but nobody likes to talk about those. You should've heard Zoe on the subject. You wouldn't think she even knew words like that."
"Do you claim to be a variant iteration?" asked the voice from behind the door.
"Yes," said the Doctor immediately, "that's it. That's exactly what I'm claiming. I'm a variant iteration. That's what I am all right. Oh ho yes. I'm a variant iteraion, me. No question."
She looked across at Felix and twitched her eyebrows at him. He had to cover his mouth to suppress a laugh.
There was another little slab of busy silence before the voice asked.
"State details of your variation," said the voice cunningly.
The Doctor's eyes narrowed, making her look like a chess player whose opponent had just done something unorthodox with a bishop.
"I'm... sorry but I'm from a Karkus strip in which the Karkus has lost his memory. Dull storyline. But then the amnesia plot is always dull. At least, I imagine it is. I can't actually remember."
"You also fail to match the physical description and set gender of the character," said the voice.
"It was part of the my storyline," replied the Doctor instantly, but with a touch of desperation, "the character changed gender. Some people didn't like it, but there you go. I'm still the same inside. You should see me under these clothes. All muscles and pectorals and washboards and that kind of thing. They use my before and after photos in adverts on bit torrent sites. I got ripped in three weeks."
"There are no records in our files of such a storyline," said the voice, now sounding openly sardonic.
"Of course not, that storyline was lost. Someone junked it to save shelf space of something. They never found any of it, despite the best efforts of fans."
"Oh for goodness sake!" exclaimed Felix exasperatedly, "I thought you said this place was a democracy now!"
"Democracies run on paperwork just as much as tyrannies," said the Doctor, "but you have a point."
She turned back to the hatch.
"Look here mate," she said, adopting a tone of chummy familiarity, "we're all working stiffs here, amirite? I realise you've got a job to do, and I realise it's an important job, and I admire how seriously you take it, but... has it really come to this? Checking and double checking the minute details of a chap's life, just because she wants to walk through a door? Who is it that you think I am? What mischief do you imagine I might be planning to get up to in there? How long has it been since the White Robots and the Toy Soldiers got reprogrammed and went off to live together in that big commune? A long time. There's even a generation of their kids now, I understand. Has there been any trouble since then? Beyond the obvious trouble you're bound to get in a world where Iago is friends with Richard III, I mean?" Her voice adopted a slightly wheedling tone. "C'mon, we're all fictional characters together, aren't we?"
"Are we?" asked the voice after a long pause.
"Yes," said the Doctor, "of course."
The hatch opened a little way and the Doctor withdrew her spoon.
"Not authenticated," said the voice, and the hatch snapped shut. This time, unimpeded.
"Reminds me of Herr Weißhaupt at the hotel," said Felix, "He was only the doorman but you would have thought he owned the place."
"Hmm," said the Doctor, frowning and looking at her spoon, which now had an unsightly dent in it's long handle, "I only wanted to look around the castle. Retrace my steps. Set off a few alarms by walking though some light beams. A bit of nostalgia."
"Nostalgia literally means 'the pain of the past'," said Felix.
"I know that," snapped the Doctor.
Felix felt himself blush.
"I'm sorry," said the Doctor.
"No, I'm sorry," said Felix, "it comes of being a schoolmaster's son. Papa always liked showing off his knowledge. I suppose it rubbed off on me."
"I'm hardly one to talk," said the Doctor. "Perhaps we should go and see Ichabod Crane. Now there
was an insufferable schoolmaster. And goodness only knows who he stayed that thin with his appetite."
Felix was relieved. The awkward moment had been erased as the Doctor had ridden off on another of her trains of thought. He wondered for which station it was bound. All he knew was that he wanted to be along for the ride.
They trudged back down the long, winding, dirty path.
They met some fascinating travellers on their way. A voluble Irishwoman called Molly Bloom, a young governess of steely intellect and dignity called Miss Eyre whom the Doctor approached with something like reverance, and a pair of Russian aristocrats named Myshkin and Oblonsky who were travelling together in mutual fug of amiable bemusement. Felix took an instant liking to two young men they met further on, Messers Nickleby and Smike. Nickleby and Felix had a good long chat about the ethics of classroom discipline. Felix's father had been notably lenient, which Nickleby applauded. Smike said little, but sat under a tree with the Doctor, shyly eating chunks of cheese which the Doctor had found in one of her pockets wrapped in a piece of brown (which is to say grey) paper. The Doctor insisted he ate them, telling him he needed fattening up.
Felix began to see what the Doctor meant about it being the people here who drew him back again and again. Having said that, the Doctor studiously avoided some of the travellers. She wanted nothing to do with a superficially charming Italian man who introduced himself as Count Fosco. And when they encountered someone called Humbert, the Doctor immediately kneed him in the groin, took his stepdaughter by the hand, and walked off. Felix asked what was going on but the Doctor only muttered something about a nice turn of phrase being no excuse. She chatted naturally enough with the young girl, who trotted along beside her with an air of bland lassitude.
The Doctor then stopped for a long chat with a dogged land surveyor who called himself only 'K'. She advised him solmenly not to bother trying to get into the castle. "No point," she said, "trust me."
"Hang on a minute!" said the Doctor suddenly, startling K. She abandoned the conversation with him (which was only going round in circles anyway) and turned to the little girl, who was now chatting with Felix by the side of the road.
"You," she said, pointing at her, "you're still in copyright!"
"Why are we going back?" asked Felix. He was feeling weary and exasperated, but he was also concerned about he Doctor. She was anxious, upset, frantic. It was hard to tell with her face rendered only in silvery grey, but she seemed to have gone very pale.
"You heard Dolores!" the Doctor replied, shouting back to him from over her shoulder as she strode ahead, "you heard what she said!"
Young Dolores - whom they had left in the care of Miss Eyre - had told them that she and her stepfather had 'escaped' from somewhere. From the account she gave, Felix thought the place sounded like a cross between a prison and a gigantic filing cabinet.
"I don't understand why those people were being held prisoner," said Felix.
"Well, Humbert deserves to be locked up," said the Doctor, "but the point is, he wasn't locked up for the right reasons. He and the girl were being kept locked up because they're still in copyright! That's why you never meet late Chaplin characters! The rights to the movies he made after 1918 are all still owned by someone! All these years I've been coming here and I never realised! Never stopped to think about it! You never meet anyone here who's still in copyright! So where are all the copyrighted characters being kept? Hmm? I never thought about it! Never let it trouble me! I just never asked the question!" She was fuming with herself. "I just accepted it! 'It's just the way it is', I said to myself!"
"Like the black and white," said Felix.
The Doctor stopped abruptly and faced him.
"Exactly," she said, and she looked downcast and ashamed, "You were right Felix. We shouldn't just accept the things as they are. We should always question. 'Doubt everything', as old Charlie-boy used to say on his daughter's questionaires. We should always
worry about how the world we're in works, and how it changes us."
She turned on her heel and resumed striding up the path towards the castle.
"Well," panted Felix, "since I'm so wise, perhaps you'd like to answer my very pertinent question!"
"Which of your many pertinent questions are you referring to?"
"The one about why we're going back to the castle."
"Because that's where Dolores said she escaped from!"
"But my point," said Felix, stopping to hunch over, hands on knees, and dry heave from exhaustion, "was: why are we going back there when we know we can't get in?"
The words came out as little more than a whisper, but the Doctor seemed to hear them anyway because she called back: "Because I've just remembered something."
"What?" gasped Felix, making a valiant effort to straighten up and get started again.
"Continuity!" shouted the Doctor.
They collapsed back at the castle doors. Felix fell face down into the dusty grey dirt and had to traverse the final few feet to the drawbridge crawling on all fours. Even the Doctor was showing strain by this point. She was wheezing loudly and sweat was pouring down her now indisputably pale face. She had even abandoned her beloved astrakhan jacket because of the heat. It lay in a crumpled heap by the side of the road about a quarter of a mile away.
"I'm dying," groaned Felix, "I haven't had to run that far and fast since training..."
"You'll survive," croaked the Doctor.
Felix looked over the side of the drawbridge at the grey water of the moat below... far too far below to be reached.
"Do you think they'll let us in for reasons of compassion if we beg for water?" said Felix, "Is that your plan?"
"No," said the Doctor, "We don't need to rely on compassion. What we need..." and here she seemed to self-consciously gather herself up and address herself to the silvery sunniness of the heavens, "...is the strength of Karkus!"
In any other context, Felix would have assumed that what he saw next was an hallucination brought on by heat and exhaustion. As he squinted through his tear-filled eyes he saw a man appear out of nowhere in an explosion of stylised zig-zags. The man was about seven feet tall, and seemed to be made entirely out of muscles. The ridges on his bare chest were so defined they looked as though they had been picked out in black, as if someone had painted a vast spider's web across his front. The muscles heaved and rippled like an obscene, fleshy bouncy castle. The man was wearing a back cape, black leather gloves, and a black leather mask and skull cap reminiscent of those worn by medieval executioners.
"You will get up," shouted the man hectoringly, and in a psuedo-germanic accent even more ridiculous than the one the Doctor had adopted earlier, "and put the hands above the head."
The man glared down at Felix, and his grey eyes displayed an alarming mixture of malice, contempt and pig ignorance. And yet, there was something strangely noble about him. It was as if he had self-consciously turned his truculence and anger into a shield by which to camouflage the ridiculousness of his appearance.
Felix was irresistibly reminded of old Feldwebel Bendel, who had somehow managed to instil terror in all the young recruits despite being short-sighted, nasal, duck-footed, and so small and skinny that he almost disappeared behind his disproportionately vast moustache.
Unfortunately, the dignified effect that the strange man had achieved with his weaponised arrogance was somewhat undermined by the appearance of the actual weapon he held in his hand.
"Or what?" gasped Felix, "You'll shoot me with that
thing?" He indicated the 'gun' with his eyes. "What is it, a child's spinning top? A miniature model of a Christmas tree? A piece of abstract sculpture?"
"This is my anti-molecular ray disintegrator!" declared the man, sounding genuinely as if he expected Felix to be awed and terrified.
"A what?" asked Felix.
The man seemed momentarily at a loss but he rallied himself quickly.
"It is a powerful gun!" he declared.
"Pfft," said Felix, and allowed himself to collapse back onto the ground.
"I said get up!" bellowed the man.
"I know guns," said Felix, as if talking to the dirt, "I've shot them and been shot at with them. That's not a gun. That looks more like a new type of egg whisk."
The man actually growled.
There was a polite cough from behind him. He wheeled round, surprised.
"Hello again," said the Doctor, conversationally.
"Ahh!" exclaimed the man, mouth wide open and teeth gleaming. He looked satisfied with his new opponent. He put his 'gun' back in his belt and spread his arms. He faced the Doctor in a battle-ready half crouch. He snarled. He pounded his rippling chest. He slapped a fist into his palm. His triceps competed with his biceps for which would bulge the most. His feet pawed the ground like a tiger getting ready to lauch itself at a crocodile. His eyes gleamed. He raised both fists. He quivered like a coiled spring. He yelled a belligerent and triumphant "Rrrrraarrrgghhh!" sound. He sprang.
4.8 seconds later the Doctor had him on the ground, sobbing, in a full nelson.
Felix wanted to facetiously complain about the Doctor's use of an illegal move but he couldn't get the words out for laughing.
"Mercy!" bawled the man.
"Do you submit?" demanded the Doctor, pushing one of her knees viciously into the small of his back.
"I submit! I submit!"
She released him and rolled back into a sitting posture. She crossed her legs. All aggression seemed to have suddenly drained out of her. She now looked relaxed, affable and amused. Her hat had fallen off. She looked around and saw it lying in the dust a few feet away, but seemed not to be in a rush to retrieve it.
The huge man picked himself up off the ground and stood directly in front of her. His attitude was a curious hybrid of resentment and humility. Then he fell to one knee.
"Command me, Mistress," said the man.
The Doctor grinned and shook her head. She ruffled her hair to knock out some of the dust.
"Fetch my hat would you, Karkus old chap?" she said to the man as he seethed meekly at her.
Felix boggled as the man obediently jumped up and trotted over to the Doctor's hat. He picked it up and brought it back to where she was sitting. He held it out to her like a lady-in-waiting offering Marie Antoinette a fresh eclair.
"This is the Karkus!?" spluttered Felix.
"That's him," said the Doctor, "the man himself. In his first and most famous version... the version of him which appears out of thin air when summoned by someone who needs him. As I eventually remembered."
"Oh," said Felix, "I see. But why would he come when called by someone needing help and then attack the way he did?"
"It's a bit dirty, old bean," said the Doctor to the Karkus, as if mildly outraged at being offered a dusty hat.
The Karkus started brushing the hat with his hand, looking stoical but thoroughly at a loss. Felix got the sense that he would instantly be happy again if asked to crush the hat with one fist, or stamp on it, or tear it to pieces with his teeth.
"Ah well," said the Doctor, readdressing herself to Felix, "that's the Karkus you see. That's how he works. If you want his help, you have to beat him. At least, that's how it works with this
"What kind of hero is that?"
"In some ways he's a bit like Wonder Woman," said the Doctor.
"Who?" asked Felix.
"An Amazon," said the Doctor, accepting her now-dusted hat from the Karkus. "Another comic strip creation. She originally furthered her creator's strangely utopian fixation on bondage. Part of the original point of the character was that she was tall, powerful and gorgeous, and frequently got tied up... and then tied other people up. Thrills galore there, if that's your thing. The Karkus is similar in that he was invented by a woman writer who liked the idea of a character who was your typical muscle-bound, misogynistic meathead of a male supervillain but who had to become the slave of any woman who could beat him up. They summon him, he attacks them, they win, he becomes their slave. That's the formula... at least of this version of the character, before they ballsed him up, before men got their hands on the comics and decided to feel oppressed by the concept. Classic Karkus - proper
Karkus! - spends his entire time being physically vanquished and dominated by beautiful women who then lead him around like a puppy dog, ordering him about. Which is precisely what has just happened again, you'll notice," she added, smoothing a stray slab of her hair behind one of her ears before placing her hat back on her head.
"Isn't it enough for you that you have me to run around after you doing everything you say?" asked Felix.
"Don't be churlish, Fee," said the Doctor, "you know you love it."
"I'd also quite interested in meeting this Wonder Woman," said Felix.
"We'll see what we can do," said the Doctor.
"Should I take away his gun?" asked Felix, indicating the Karkus.
"No need," said the Doctor, "his gun doesn't exist. Can't do. It's stupid."
The Karkus looked down at his belt where his gun had been. His mouth turned very thin and his chin wobbled slightly, but he said not a word.
"All right?" asked the Doctor, raising an eyebrow at him.
"Yes, Mistress," said the Karkus sullenly, "I am your slave."
"Yes you are Karkus, my old buddy," said the Doctor, "yes you are. And you have to do everything I say, don't you?"
"Yes Mistress," said the Karkus.
"Yes," said the Doctor.
And though she was smiling, and her tone was jocular, there was anger in her eyes.
"Uh oh," said Felix.
He'd seen that look before.
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